Tuesday, March 02, 2010

About Business Books

I read Kenneth W Gronbach's The Age Curve with interest.

But while the point the book makes is very valid, that marketers need to be more aware of the demographic trends and take these into account, I have to criticize the book for its structure and style.

I think the biggest problem with business literature now is their structure. Every book seems to follow a structure of presenting a sort of 'Executive Summary' at the beginning, and then elaborate explanations and data in the subsequent chapters. Nice idea, but once you have started reading hundreds of books with the same format, it becomes boring, sometimes downright irritating.

There may be quite a bit of argument in favour of such a format, but I just don't get it. I guess the key argument will be that today's business people do not read a book and hence a short executive summary is needed, but then why print a book? With all the innovations in electronic book reading, it does not seem book reading is dying in any way. It seems to be just changing formats.

In effect, business books have taken a separate format than stories. Stories move forward because the end is not known. It keeps the readers glued on with suspense. However, most business books which follow the smart format gives the story right away. And, given that the most business books are over-edited and works with one central idea. Once that's given out, you read it all. The rest becomes repetition, and in a few moments, you have started saying - oh I know that!

There is another problem with most business book writers. They tend to oversell their proposition. That's what the editors demand, I suppose, that each book presents the magic formula to solve world's problems. It also has to be the ONLY formula, over and above that. So, what you get is an unbearable preaching of one single principle, over and over again. One would almost want to yell - well, point taken - but even at that point, you will have another 100 pages to go.

I would think the fault largely lies with the professionalization of the publishing industry. We are clearly getting editors who are more conscious about the style than the substance. There must have been this magic formula that a business book should be about 250 pages long, otherwise how do I get to read so many books which are exactly the same size, regardless of the content. Chris Anderson is a favourite, but he surely put me off with his THE LONGER LONG TAIL, which is a rehash of THE LONG TAIL, which was unbearably long itself [I would think the books are a waste of time, but the idea, brilliantly conceived and presented in the original article, which is available to read for free, was absolutely remarkable]. Same goes with his thought provoking FREE, which was an interesting article to read, and the unfree book edition proved to be another tedious read.

I must admit that I generalize, and some authors still kept the style of narrative alive. Obvious example of Malcolm Gladwell, who knows how to unfold an idea as a story. No wonder he is regarded as an absolute star. I can say that about a number of business books, most recently about Throwing Sheep In The Boardroom, which presented a brilliant idea in an interesting fashion and with artful narrative. And, sometimes, even if the book follows a formula, it is captivatingly presented - I would cite Dan and Chip Heath's Made to Stick as an example - which, despite starting with an Executive Summary and being of perfect editor-prescribed length, is still a sticky read because of the depth of the content, variety of examples and value of the embedded ideas.

Let me summarise all this in a statement: Business Books, no less, should be designed to tell a story. They should not be mistaken for an advertising brochure, or a training programme, or a business plan.

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